… he was swept away by the retreating wave, and perished before our very eyes … a shred of his blue woollen shirt, hanging on the rocks, alone testified that he had lived!
On the 8th October 1852 a newspaper account detailed the ship wrecking of the Dutch barque “Vice Admiraal Rijk” on the South West point of Christmas Island. You can read it here. In that tragedy 17 men lost their lives. However, there were three men who managed to make their way to safety, over a treacherous rocky coastline. They endured nearly a two month ordeal of survival. A month after their rescue, one of those men, Roelof Arnold Herman Tollius Kennet (sometimes spelt Bennet), gave an account of the ordeal and his story appeared in the L’Illustration , Journal Universal, v.20 (July-Dec 1852) . Many thanks go to Saad el Manar who translated the original French article into the English below:
Report of the Shipwreck
From the merchant three-master VICE-ADMIRAAL RIJK, sailing from Amsterdam to Batavia, on Christmas Island, by Tollius Kennet, ex-officer of the Royal Navy, passenger on board the aforementioned ship.
Some preliminary details are necessary for the understanding of the story that will follow.
Christmas Island is located, according to Horsburg’s description, at 105.33 longitude E. of Greenwich, and 10°.32 8. latitude, about 255 miles from Java. It extends three and a half leagues by four leagues. Since the discovery of the sea route to India, it is not known that any vessel has been lost or visited it.
It is formed of coral rocks covered on the heights with evergreen trees, and is accessible only in the N.W. Everywhere else, it is surrounded by sheer rocky outcrops and provides no anchoring, as the sea is so deep at just a few yards from the island that the ship’s anchor doesn’t touch ground. It was once visited by Indians, who, after a stay of nine months, finding it unwelcoming, sought refuge, using their canoes, on board a ship in sight.
On the 27th of June 1852, at noon, we were, according to the observations, 15 miles S. from Christmas Island, to which we were heading, hoping to see it before nightfall. We had the wind S.E. and E.S.E. Unfortunately, towards the evening, clouds took cover, and heavy rain started pouring in the direction of the island, urging us to move away from the island for safety reasons. Having tacked, southward, we sailed off under small (low?) sails. Over the nine and a half hours, the sky having cleared up, we could see the island, ahead by N. and E. 1/2 E., at a distance of three geographical miles; we tacked at ten o’clock, heading north, in order to double the island at a distance of seven or eight minutes (about two miles).
At midnight, with the island to the N.N.E., two and a half miles away, the chief officer, Mr. de Groot, passed over the watch to the captain and went to bed, together with the people of the watch and myself, a passenger, who had gone to bed at half past eleven, and who dreamed for the next day about the sight of the Java coast, after thirteen days at sea.
Therefore, none of the three of us, who were saved, can give any information about what happened from midnight until we were awakened by the calls of the second officer on the starboard side. The helm, starboard the helm! and other warnings of breakers ahead. At that very moment, a terrifying shock made me jump out of my bed: the ship struck! I rushed to the deck, and I realized that the ship had struck on the rocks of the island itself; for, in spite of the darkness (the moon having set at two o’clock), we could distinguish the trees, and the sea breaking at a height of forty feet. However, by striking, the ship, having received, through the very shock, a retrograde impulse (backwards movement?), sank front to west, and, succumbing to the impact of the starboard helm and the squarely set sails of the stern, it moved off to the open sea with the wind astern. Unfortunately, although it had only hit the sharp rocks once, the leak was so strong below the surface of the water line that, as the ship was sinking rapidly, we realised that all hope was lost, and that the boats had to be put into the sea as soon as possible. We rushed to the big rowboat, which was on the deck; but the ship, sinking from the front, did not give us time, and forced the crew to seek cover in the skiff hung on the side of the ship. The captain and I were already seated there, but the immersion, gaining speed, took away our last hope. Death was so inevitable that no effort was attempted to save ourselves. To the noise and agitation that filled the ship earlier, followed a silence that was the precursor of eternal silence! The sea, breaking, was the only sound that was heard. The front of the ship was already swallowed up and the entire deck submerged. The waves were anchoring the keel of the skiff. At that terrible moment, the second mate, de Groot, and the deckhand Kipping, realizing that the water in the ship was pushing hard and was ripping the aft cabin off the deck, jumped out of the skiff … We were submerged; the ship was sinking under full sail.
The light of the cabin was the last thing that caught my eyes …
Back on the water with a lot of pain, I couldn’t see anything more of the ship, nor its high mast. No one either! Trying to find my way, I noticed something white floating; I swam in that direction, followed by a greyhound dog, which perished a few moments later. The object towards which I was heading was the roof of the rear cabin, on which was the second mate de Groot, the sailor Kipping and the cook Hollander. So I was the fourth person to join in. I wouldn’t be able to describe this night of anguish; we were in water up to our chests, struggling with the worst of the rolls.
Eventually daylight appeared, and we realized that the ship was stranded at the most S.W. point of the island, from which we were quite far away, as the current was running to the N.W. We immediately began to lighten our raft, from the unnecessary wooden planks which we used for rowing, along with a small flag for a sail, and we reached the N.W. point at about four o’clock in the evening, which Horsburg indicated as an approachable point. Thrown on a rather low beach, we were fortunate enough to cling to the sharp ends of the coral and avoid being swept away by the ebb; the cook however did not make it; since his head smashed on the rocks, he was swept away by the retreating wave, and perished before our very eyes, making a few faint cries asking us for help that we could not provide. Only when we were able to catch our breath, a shred of his blue woollen shirt, hanging on the rocks, alone testified that he had lived! We hastened to climb the steep corals that were in front of us, before another wave could catch us.
Once we were out of danger, we watched our raft crash; then, coming back down with unbelievable pain, we managed to save three boards and the flag which, later on, proved to be our lifeline.
Seventeen people had perished!
After climbing the rocks for the second time, we found holes with a little water, thanks to the rain of the previous night. A feverish thirst was devouring us. All around us, on small trees, we saw several sea birds which, on this deserted island, are in no way frightened of the presence of humans; they allowed us to get close enough and knock out two of them with a tree branch; we ate them raw before sunset.
After looking for a place where we could lie down and make a bed of leaves, we fell asleep overcome with fatigue!
The next day, when we woke up, we were overwhelmed by the saddest thoughts! What can we do on this deserted island? How long are we supposed to stay here? Are we going to die here? Tormented by thirst and hunger, we went into the woods in the hope of finding some fruits, such as coconuts, bananas, that we could eat; we only found a few bitter fruits that we could not eat. We had to go back to the raw birds.
After a few days of struggle, we managed to stick our flag on a long branch stripped of its leaves, towering above the tallest tree on this tip of the island, and we waited, hoping that it would be spotted by ships sailing by in sight.
We built a kind of roof, using branches and leaves, to cover ourselves, as best we can, from rain and bad weather during the night.
The first day we had a knife which was later lost in the woods, and a watch of which the spring was used, along with the knife, to attempt starting a fire; but since the coral is a spongy rock, it did not yield any fire sparks. Since the Indians were able to start a fire using bamboo sticks, we went through all the woods in the hope of finding some: it was a lost cause. We tried all kinds of wood without much success, and, after several days of continuous effort, we eventually had to give up that hope.
Three or four days later, as the water dried in the hollows around the cabin, we had to start looking for more. For our excursions, we had cut wooden soles out of the three planks saved from the shipwreck, which, attached to our feet with creepers, allowed us to walk on the sharp ends of the coral, and, despite this, we would often tumble down, ripping apart our clothes, which consisted of a pair of pants and a shirt, not to mention the cuts and wounds, some deeper than others, that had scarred our bodies.
Finally, half a league away, we came across clear water, plenty of it; but to get there, we had to cross a gully, unless we go around the obstacle by going deep into the woods at some considerable distance.
Several young trees uprooted and put across the gully served as a bridge that we crossed, using our knees and hands each time we had to go to the source. I will point out a rather remarkable fact here; is that the sea, not being able to cover the beach because of the steep rocks, has, by running under these rocks, dug a large round hole which, over the years, has ended up in the woods even at a distance of 150 meters, thus forming some sort of crater from which foam and wind often gushes out, forced by the waves that rush in, as well as fragments of coral creating a kind of dune around the opening, which I felt when I threw some pieces of wood that were propelled away as they could be from a liquid body, the force of the sea being such, and the foam gushing so high, that one morning we found our bridge wiped out (it was placed at a height of 50 feet above sea level).
On the second day of our arrival on the island, the 29th, we saw a ship pass by that did not spot our flag.
The following Sunday, July the 3rd, we saw two of them in a row, one of them quite close, but nothing much happened! We were still hopeful! But after fifteen days, realizing that ships were passing only at a distance, and feeling exhaustion over the days, we felt discouraged; death seemed almost inevitable!
We have been on the island for thirty days; sixteen ships passed by without seeing our signal, though sailing close enough to recognize the S.W. point of the island; but, the path being to the north, they then set sail away. We decided then to head towards that point, if the first one we saw passed without helping us.
On Sunday, thirty-five days after our shipwreck, a brig passed close enough to us with no sign that they saw us. We then immediately made up our mind, and after using the only remaining plank of wood we had left to make a spare pair of sandals, we took off that very afternoon. We passed the water source where we had been drinking all this time, and we went further down to sleep under the trees; during the day when we went deep into the woods, we adjusted ourselves to the sun so as not to move away from the beach where we were going to sleep in the evening.
The depth of the ravines and the sharp edges of the rocks kept us from following the shoreline.
Towards the center of the island, we found a bay that was one and a half leagues long. It was while making this detour that we had the most difficulties, ups and downs, plants so tall and so thick that we could hardly get through, using our sticks to make our way through, sometimes taking an hour to walk a hundred paces!
And so, with unheard of effort and pain, wearing ragged clothes and with our bodies suffering from deep wounds, we arrived, on the eighth day, at Point S.W., where we found, fortunately, a lot of water, and, in the evening, coming out of the woods, birds in great enough numbers to stock up for the next day.
We built a new shelter near several sources of clean water, and, after much effort, we raised our flag again on the top of the rock, in clear view, and patiently awaiting our salvation
If, on the other side of the island, we had had to suffer from rats and large crabs coming out of the woods in the evening, they were even more in number and more annoying here; we couldn’t rest, especially at night; the crabs were pinching our feet. With our sticks, we often had to hit them and knock them down. They would run away, but they were immediately attacked by rats, who devoured them half alive. Finally, August 23rd, fifty-seven days after our arrival, was to be the day of our rescue.
The three-masted barque Amicitia, passing near the island, saw our flag, and, immediately hoisting its own, stopped and lowered one of its boats into the sea, heading for the island.
I was busy in the cabin making a fishing line with plant fibers (the second mate and deckhand were hunting). Feeling thirsty, I went to the beach to go drink at the source; I couldn’t believe my eyes! a ship has stopped !…. Unable to hold myself back and driven by the emotion, I went down on the beach, waving my shirt at the end of my stick…. However I couldn’t see anything happening; no rowboat was put into the sea, and so anguish took hold of me. Wouldn’t they have seen us? But all of a sudden I see a canoe passing the highest point of the island. My two companions were already on it! One of them shouted at me that, as the canoe could not find a place to land, I had to jump into the sea, which I did immediately, and, a few moments later, we were standing on the deck of a ship. Only then were we aware of our weakness, which Captain Crap-Hellingivan, the passengers and the crew were trying to make us forget by their good care.
Finally, on August 28th, we anchored in the bay of Batavia among our compatriots. The attention we received and the welcome we were given was out of the ordinary, and when I arrived at the home of Mr. P. Van Roes, a resident of Batavia, I had the chance to appreciate how much his reputation for caring for the unfortunate was well-deserved; his generous hospitality made me forget my recent misfortunes.
A few days after our arrival, a merchant ship that anchored in Batavia reported that, on the second night after our rescue, it had seen a big fire at the very location on the island where we had stayed for so long, which gave the idea that a few other castaways could also have made it to the island and taken shelter there. As a result, the steamship Samarang, which remained in sight for two days, was sent out, firing the cannon. But no sign of any living people!!!! …. It is unfortunately certain that all the remaining crew perished on the night of the 27th.
Batavia the island of Java, September the 28th, 1852.
The above story also appears in an 1855 Dutch Book titled “Geschiedenis der Voornaamste schipbreuken en andere merkwaardige voorvallen ter zee” (History of Major Shipwrecks and Other Remarkable Incidents at Sea).